We’re past the halfway point, so we feel confident enough to call it now: best season yet. Part of what has made this season so memorable and so energetic (despite the sometimes melancholy feel) is that in every episode and with practically every scene and character, the creators are paying off all of the work they did in the first three seasons establishing these characters and giving them all a history with each other. When Peggy runs to the ladies room after Don viciously berates her and stands in front of the mirror to have a good cry, we are deliberately reminded of the scene in season 1, when she ran to the ladies room to have a good cry (that time because she was getting sick of the unwanted male attention) and found that she had no tears. Being sexually harrassed? Not tear-worthy to Peggy Olson. Having her mentor tear her to shreds over her naked ambition? That’ll do it.
Similarly, when Don put his hand over hers in the last scene, squeezed it, held it, and looked into her eyes, we are deliberately reminded of their first day together, in the pilot, where a young and inexperienced Peggy, mistakenly taking Joan’s advice a bit too literally, made a play for Don that he gently rebuffed. And because we are reminded of those earlier scenes, these later scenes demonstrate how far these two characters have come and how much they have each other to thank for their journeys.
Which leads to the big question hanging in the air after this episode; a question we honestly never even thought to ask before now: Considering their deep connection and mutual understanding of each other, is it possible that Don and Peggy could have a romantic relationship down the line? Obviously, pretty much anything is possible with this show and we’d never totally rule out the possibility (although we would have prior to this episode), we’re going with “no.” That’s not what this is about. Knowing both characters as we do, if they wanted to sleep with each other, they would have done so by now and they certainly would have done so at some point during their shared dark night of the soul.
In fact, this episode at least partially addresses this point. Not only by having them openly discuss why he never slept with her, but by having the secrets of their respective sexual histories bared to each other; Don’s through Peggy’s oblique reference to the disastrous Allison hookup and Peggy’s through the surprisingly frank discussion of her pregnancy and the hilariously pathetic “showdown” with Duck Phillips. It was never made clear whether or not Don knew about the pregnancy. By the time he visited Peggy she was in the psych ward and he asked her “What happened to you?” which was just vague enough to make us wonder if he knew why she was in the psych ward. That scene in the bar had us quite tense because we knew that he only had to push a little bit and she might have given up the fact that Pete was the father. If her sexual past with Duck left him flabbergasted he probably would have passed out from shock upon finding out she slept with Pete. And knowing how potentially volatile the Pete/Don relationship has always been (as well as the fact that Pete knows the Dick Whitman secret) that is not a bit of information you want Don to know, because in a fit of anger or in a power play move, he wouldn’t hesitate to break that out.
Then again, they both revealed so much to each other last night that a little thing like the paternity of her baby might get lost in the avalanche of information. From Peggy, we find out (or get confirmation) that men don’t respond to her the way they respond to some other women. She doesn’t get the kind of stares that someone like Joan does. “Do you really want that?” Don asks, ever perceptive. No, not really. Like any person, she’d like to feel sexually attractive, but it’s not what drives her and she needs Don to point that out to her. She’s a little hurt that he never made a play for her and it surprised us to hear her openly admit that to him. In addition, we find that giving up her baby wasn’t exactly effortless for her and that one word, “playgrounds,” is all that needs to be said about the occasional twinges of pain she feels and how they can come up out of nowhere.
Don, to our shock, revealed more about his real past than he had to any character besides Betty and Rachel Mencken. He told her he grew up on a farm, that he was a “yokel,” that his father was killed by a horse kick, that his Uncle Max had more influence on him than he’d probably like to admit (“A man has to be ready to go at any moment.”), and that he never knew his mother.
All of that paled, of course, to the information he revealed to Peggy after he made that phone call. The fact that he would even make that call with Peggy in the room shows just how much he needed to show that side of himself to her. Peggy told Mark, during one of her many phone calls to him, that she got drawn into Don’s web and that’s as good a description as any, not only of their night together but of their entire relationship up to that point. Don was using the Samsonite pitch to keep her in the office, but as Roger pointed out, that meeting wasn’t for another 2 weeks. Neither of them needed to be there working, but Don needed someone to be there when he made that phone call and Peggy was the only person he could trust to do that. In typical Don fashion, he couldn’t ask her to stay, so he berated her and bullied her into staying.
Peggy, for her part, acted as if it was all Don’s fault that she missed out on her birthday dinner, but he rightfully pointed out that she could have told him about it. She used him as much as he used her. The fact is, she didn’t want to go to dinner with Mark, even if she couldn’t admit it to herself. Upon finding out that he had invited her family, that was the end of that. He has no idea who she is.
No, Peggy wanted to stay in the office. She needed to. Like Don, she can’t seem to break free from its grip. “I know what I’m supposed to want,” she says in reference to the pressure she feels to make more traditional life choices. “It just doesn’t feel right. Or as important as anything in that office.” “There’s a way out of this room we don’t know about,” Don says, and we wonder if they even want to know a way out. Both of them find family and personal relationships way too difficult to navigate. They’re not good at it so they remain locked into the one place where they both know they reign supreme.
And the great thing about the Don and Peggy relationship now is that they both have free rein to yell at each other. Not equals exactly, but not the typical boss/underling relationship either. Much like the concurrent Clay vs. Liston match, these two entered the ring and started swinging. “Well it’s not my fault you don’t have any family or friends or anywhere else to go.” Can you imagine Peggy saying that as recently as last season? Can you imagine ANYONE (aside from maybe Roger) saying that to Don? Even better, her anger allowed her the strength to not let him bully her. “Is that a threat? Because I’ve already taken somebody up on one of those tonight.” Still, she doesn’t entirely get the upper hand as Don reminds her once again that her naked ambition is unbecoming and her constant need to get credit is not helping her. Although we have to be amused at his top-of-his-lungs putdown, “Everything to you is an opportunity!” Which, after last week’s revelation that he essentially conned his way into his job at Sterling Cooper, is a particularly enlightening criticism to make. She is exactly like him and because he’s so filled with self-loathing he lashes out at her for those things that remind him most of himself.
Still, he wasn’t totally off-base with his criticism, just as she wasn’t off-base with hers. Even though Don, like most men of the time, doesn’t know how to effectively respond to an ambitious woman, he’s right. Peggy is too nakedly ambitious and while we think she deserves every bit of respect that she feels she’s not getting, the fact of the matter is, screaming at your boss “two years into your career” about not getting enough credit, while admirably ballsy, is not an appropriate way to exhibit ambition.
At the end, they came to a much greater understanding of each other and Peggy was there for Don at a time when he really needed it. You could say Don ruined her birthday, but we doubt she’d think of it that way. The outside world is confusing and painful and uninteresting to her. Nothing at all can compare with the world inside SCDP’s walls, where she is needed; where she can be more alive and more herself than anywhere else; where high drama regularly happens and she’s in the thick of it. How could anything else compare to that?
As for Don, we’re cautiously optimistic about his future. As the vision of Anna faded away, we saw that she was carrying a suitcase and we sincerely hope that it means she was packing up all of Don’s baggage and taking it with her. We feared that the death of Anna was going to send him into a tailspin — and it did, but only momentarily, because Peggy was there to hold him and to tell him that he’s not alone. There is still someone on this earth who knows him for who he is and, as Anna’s would say, “loves him anyway.” No, this isn’t a romantic love any more than his relationship with Anna was. In some ways, this goes deeper than that. Peggy and Don are two intensely private people who pour their energies into their work rather than into their personal lives. It’s good that they found each other. He showed her her potential and she showed him that he is worth knowing and worth loving. “Open or closed?” she asks. “Open,” he replies, and he’s not just talking about the door.
* It should be noted that Don is still not catching up with the times. Peggy rightfully pointed out that he keeps pitching print ad ideas when they’re trying to come up with a TV spot and his dislike of Cassius Clay (who had already changed his name to Muhammad Ali at this point, but typically, no one refers to him that way) and the idea of Joe Namath as a product pitchman (a role he would take on to huge success in the ’70s) shows that he’s not exactly spotting the trends or picking the winners ahead of time.
* “If I wanted to see two Negroes fight I’d throw a dollar bill out the window.” Is it wrong to laugh at these lines? Not because we think racism is funny, but because the way characters blithely toss these comments off is, well, funny.
* Ida Blankenship, “queen of perversions.” Show of hands: How many of you would actually buy a mock copy of “Sterling’s Gold,” by Roger Sterling? We’d buy it in a heartbeat. In one minute of tape, Roger managed to drop two bombshells that are going to forever color the way we see two characters, Ida the hellcat and Bert Cooper, the ball-less wonder. At least we all know who Dr. Lyle Evans is now.
* Joan clearly hates Joey and he clearly doesn’t show her the kind of respect and obeisance she’s used to. Given her frustration with Lane and the fact that he is, as he said “immune” to her charms, we’re wondering if the point is being made that, due mostly to her age, Joan is losing her power as a bombshell.
* This entire season could be packaged as a brochure for Alcoholics Anonymous. They’re not exactly being shy about how pathetic an alcoholic can become. We never really had a problem with Duck. A little slimey, sure, but we weren’t repulsed by him the way some viewers seemed to be. Until last night. While his phone call to Peggy was sad in its naked need, any sympathy we felt for him evaporated when he called Peggy the one word that’ll set Don Draper off; the one word he considers the worst kind of insult: whore. Unfortunately, Don’s as big a drunk as Duck is and his attempt to defend Peggy’s honor was just as pathetic as Duck’s attempt to “leave a little present” on what he thought was Don’s chair. Interesting to note that Don admitted to Peggy he never killed anyone in Korea, but Duck (according to Duck) killed 17 men at Okinawa. Duck did get the better of him in that fight, we were sorry to see.
* The reveal that Peggy’s father died right in front of her when she was a little girl and alone with him explains a lot about her. Prior to this season (and still even now, at times) Peggy could be very withdrawn, finding it easier to observe people rather than engage them. We thought it was a great character bit when she was in the men’s room listening to Don retch and still taking the time to take in the details of this strange place, looking at the urinals and the graffiti.
* Even though the three women are probably only separated by a couple of years at most, the ladies room scene with Megan, Peggy, and Trudy reveals a generational divide. To the slightly older Trudy, Peggy is someone to be condescended to (“You’re witty. I’ve always assumed that but it turns out it’s true.”) and pitied (“Twenty-six is still very young.”), but to the younger Megan, Peggy is someone to be admired for having it all, the boyfriend and the glamorous career (“Well you’re doing all right, aren’t you?”).
* The vision of Anna was, it has to be said, distractingly cheesy and off-tone for the series, but we’re chalking that up to an alcohol-induced hallucination. And speaking of alcohol, it was subtle, but twice this episode Don revealed just how advanced his drinking has gotten as he reacted with disgust to drinks that contain no alcohol; the coffee on his desk and the glass of water at the diner.
* Duck fart. It had to be said.
[Photo credit: AMC TV]